A Working Relationship
Monica stands beside her desk and smiles as she presses her palm onto the tips of her newly sharpened pencils. She glances across the room to her deputy’s desk and rolls her eyes, even though she is alone. Papers and books are stacked in precariously balanced towers. Moving closer, she sees that a coasterless, half-empty coffee mug has made a pattern of brown circles. Crisp and biscuit crumbs are scattered haphazardly. Wrinkling her nose, she sweeps the debris into the bin and briskly smacks her hands together.
Pinned to the corkboard above Steve Honey’s desk are the drawings and notes children have given him. He refuses to throw anything away. ‘To the best teacher in the world,’ one of them declares. Monica’s top lip curls into a sneer. Everything about him irritates her. Even his screen saver makes him want to attack the monitor with a blunt instrument. It is a photograph of him in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, surrounded by over-excited ‘kids’, as he insists on calling them. It was taken on a recent ‘fun day’. Another excuse for everyone to run wild.
Returning to her own desk, she uses her monitor as a mirror as she ensures that her blouse is brushed free of crumbs and correctly buttoned. She dabs at her lips with a tissue, removing any trace of her hastily eaten lunch.
Something thuds against the office window. She opens the blinds a fraction to peer out. Steve, in the midst of an unruly football game, grins ruefully. He raises his arms in a ‘Sorry Miss’ shrug. The children around him jeer. Someone pats him on the back. Monica snaps the blind shut and returns to her desk, where she pencils in ‘maintaining a professional distance’ as an item for the next staff meeting.
She works for the remainder of lunchtime, reviewing test results, which are as disappointing as ever. In her head she hears Steve Honey declaring, in his exaggerated Geordie accent, that there is more to teaching than exam results. Tell that to the Board of Governors.
As the afternoon session commences there is a timid knock on the door. Monica forces her face into the child-friendly expression that has never come naturally to her and invites the visitor in. Grace Bennett clutches a crumpled sheet of paper, which she seems to offer to Monica as she toddles forward, thumb in mouth.
‘Is this for me?’ Monica asks, stretching out her hand. Grace recoils in horror, tightening her grip on the paper and vigorously shaking her head. She removes her soggy thumb from her mouth and points at Steve’s desk.
The smile remains on Monica’s face as she promises to make sure Mr Honey gets his picture. She smiles until Grace has backed out of the room, leaving the door swinging. She bites back a reprimand. After a cursory glance at the stick-like drawing she screws the paper into a tight ball and hurls it at the waste paper bin.
Steve perches on the edge of the secretary’s desk, swinging his legs like a five year old, and keeping her from her work, until he hears Monica leaving the office. He’s not in the mood for the way she peers at him over the top of her glasses, like a disapproving headmistress. He laughs at his own joke. Shirley, the secretary, asks if he has no work to do.
‘Yes Mum,’ he says, saluting as he slides off her desk. She smiles indulgently, as older women usually do.
Monica has been tidying his workspace again, he observes, as he enters the office. He is annoyed by how much this bothers him. He prides himself on his easy going nature. Monica brings out the worst in him. He surveys her desk with revenge in mind. Smiling slightly, he takes a pencil from her pot and presses its tip onto the desk until it breaks. He does the same with another, before chastising himself for his childishness. He goes back to his own desk, but inspiration strikes and draws him back. He opens Monica’s drawer and locates her pencil sharpener which, or course, is in its correct place. He chuckles as, holding the broken pencils over the open drawer, he sharpens them. The sharpenings fall like confetti. He allows some to drop onto the carpet.
He hears Monica’s clicking heels in the corridor and slams the drawer shut. He scuttles to his computer. Something distracts her, and her footsteps fade. He goes through his usual routine, checks the website of his football team, starts a game of online Scrabble. Reluctantly, he turns to the paper tower he refers to as his inbox.
She is back in the corridor. She reprimands someone for running. The culprit tells her he likes her shoes. Steve pictures her unsmiling face, the over the glasses stare.
‘Hurry along,’ she tells the confused child. Steve hears his squeaky shoes retreat as he tries to rush without running.
He sits up straight as she enters the office. His brow furrows in feigned concentration. She goes to her desk. Noticing the pencil shavings she glares at him. He busies himself with his paperwork, feeling his cheeks reddening, willing her not to open her drawer.
They work in uneasy silence. The phone buzzes and, when Monica lifts the receiver, Steve hears Shirley transferring a call. Monica rises to her feet. Her fingertips whiten under her nails as she squeezes the phone. She looks at him as she listens. Her eyes contain a terror he has never seen before. She almost seems to be seeking his reassurance.
Her hand trembles as she replaces the receiver. He lifts his eyebrows expectantly, although he knows the answer to his unspoken question. She nods in confirmation, all animosity set aside. They are allies now, against a common adversary
‘Ofsted are coming,’ she whispers..